How the Art—and Love—of Translation Relies on Intuition
Anne Posten on What It's Like to Fall Hard for a Text
Love travels through the body. When the love is between people, what this means is obvious enough. When the love is between a person and a text, what this means, to me, at least, is that the translation of a beloved text relies heavily on intuition, impulse—the kind of “knowledge” stored in the body rather than in the mind. An important reference point for my understanding of this process is music.
Before I was a translator, I was a musician, and I have always been attracted to texts in which sound is important—a certain rhythm, a certain feel for how language can sing more than say: the understanding of language on which poetry rests. When playing a piece of written music, the performer makes choices in motion, on a subconscious level—what she has felt, heard, and experienced over a lifetime is stored in the memory of the body and is used to make physical decisions that convey her “understanding” of the piece, often referred to as interpretation. There is in the performance of music rarely the talk of betrayal or “wrong” interpretation that is often applied to translation, because in music it is understood that there is nothing to betray: before the musician plays the music, it simply has not existed in a form a listener can experience.
My experience of translating a beloved text is similar. Anja Kampmann’s High as the Waters Rise (Wie hoch die Wasser steigen) follows a character alternately named Waclaw or Wenzel Groszak, a 52 year-old German of Polish extraction who has worked for over a decade on offshore oil platforms. At the beginning of the book, Mátyás, Waclaw’s bunkmate and closest companion, disappears in a storm. The death sets off an odyssey of grief, along which we learn how the years of work gradually dissolved Waclaw’s ties with the life he came from, replacing it with a single deep friendship and a hopeless cycle of long shifts on decreasingly productive oil platforms alternating with bouts of intoxication, gambling, and exhaustion on shore. As Waclaw travels to Mátyás’ Hungarian village, to Italy to find an old friend of his father’s, to the Ruhr Valley mining town where he grew up, and finally to the Polish village he’d lived in with his estranged partner Milena, the book charts a reckoning with loss—of a beloved person, of natural resources and a way of life that depends on them—and journey back to life.
At every moment, the book is deeply poetic, in the sense that it is driven by the rhythms and sounds of language, in the sense that the story is felt rather than told, evoked through crystalline images and moments that demand scrupulous attention and reward with emotional impact. At the same time, it is built on immaculate specificity underlain by knowledge and facts: of the mechanics and social codes of the contemporary oil industry and the mining industry of the previous generations, of landscapes and cities across the globe, of various languages, and of too many other specialized topics to count, from pigeon racing to suit tailoring.
The project of translating High as the Waters Rise represents several firsts for me. It is the first book that I ever successfully pitched to a publisher, which means in effect that it’s the first book I’ve translated that I already loved before I started translating it; it is my first book-length project where love of the text was the reason. It is also the first book I’ve translated that was written by a friend, and the first book championed and edited by a friend: more love. In no other project have I spent even a fraction of the amount of time working with the author as I did on this book (which certainly also has to do with friendship) or doing research; in this way it was a much more polyphonic project than any other. It was the most difficult translation I’ve ever worked on, in the sense of the most work calculated by time spent. It is also the easiest translation I’ve ever worked on, in the sense that it is easy to do what you love.
What does it mean to love a text? And what does it mean to translate a text that one loves? Is it a selfless act, a service? Or is it, in fact, an act of extreme egocentrism and self-assertion, occupation, even possession?
I remember very specifically the beginning of my work on High as the Waters Rise, the warming up process of the first chapter. Knowing how it had to sound, but still having to train myself to produce that sound: finger exercises, work with the metronome, experiments with bow angle and attack. I remember the feeling of settling in, like matching a starting pitch, so that one’s own note becomes indistinguishable from those of the others. Slipping, thereby, into the consciousness of the character and understanding, mostly, why an image suddenly surfaces, to what an allusive comment refers. This was one of the most fascinating and challenging aspects of this text in particular and another moment of love.
Though written in the third person, the story of High as the Waters Rise is told through Waclaw’s perception: a narrative is constructed of what he sees, hears, and senses around him, and, crucially, of what he remembers. What he consciously thinks and feels is also reported—but what we are told of this is largely filtered through his emotional vocabulary, which is somewhat limited. There is almost no explicit mention of sadness or grief. Most often, what he knows is that he feels exhausted. The reader must therefore get close enough to Waclaw to understand what it means for him to have a memory surface at a particular time, and, more and more, even to catch from subtle hints what memory might be referred to when all that is given is an image.The truth is that on some level I wanted to translate High as the Waters Rise in the first place because I wanted it to become my own. It is not a nice impulse.
Mostly, this works, and having the sense of being able to follow the character so closely—to know him, in a way, better than he knows himself—is exhilarating. But the technique is an extremely demanding one, and there are necessarily moments where the reader’s consciousness will be too far from Waclaw’s (Anja’s) to understand perfectly. As I have noticed encountering the readings of other translators, editors, and copyeditors, these moments are bound to be different for every reader. I struggled, for example, to make sense of this passage, which arises at a moment when Waclaw is close to Mátyás’ past, but reports a scene Waclaw himself could not have known about:
Mátyás was clammy and freezing when his mother found him at daybreak. She had laid firewood in the oven, her hands shaking as she tried to light the matches, she was barefoot and felt it running cold down her thighs, and while she squatted and stared in front of her, her gaze wandered out into the first light and the apple tree with its thin, knotted crown, and there was a shadow within it, her boy lay with his head on the moss and his arms like claws around the branch, and didn’t come down, after she had run up the hill in a soundless line and grabbed him and didn’t let go until the heat of the bathwater reached his neck, and he finally fell asleep under three down quilts and she looked down at herself, furtively and suddenly old, that’s what she thought as she stood knee-deep in the leftover lukewarm water, soaping herself until her hands were blue, and the scent of the fine lavender soap drove away all thoughts of uniforms and boots in the night and the cold emanating from the other person, of the hairy hand, after the door was closed and she just tried to be quiet, always quiet, because of the children, and on awaking a cold light, pale with rage, rose over the houses and the sheds, and only when she found her son clinging to the tree did she understand that the light wasn’t angry but powerless, and her hair hung down in long strands in the lukewarm water, the soap helped nothing.
In retrospect, I can imagine a reader being sensitive enough to previous mentions of Mátyás family’s exile to the countryside after the political murder of his father to understand that the passage deals with the mother’s rape by a soldier. But this wasn’t, until I spoke to Anja, where the images had led me.
Other moments felt perfectly obvious. Of course, the “propeller” referred to is actually a lowly ceiling fan. How could anyone take the “shadings” on a sea chart for lost souls rather than unfathomable depths? In fact, the possibilities of these sometimes fanciful “misreadings” is part of the beauty of Kampmann’s text. Close attention and an ear for—a sympathy or love for—the language will lead a reader to a resonant understanding of the story, but this requires personal involvement, which sometimes leads to a reading different than the one imagined by the author. Waclaw and his story will sometimes break free.
By sheer chance, the day I sent High as the Water Rise to my editor coincided with the day Anja Kampmann accepted a major literary award. I was there, in a cacophonous and incongruous beer tent outside of Frankfurt, rather undeservedly in a reserved seat at the front table, to hear her talk about poetry and storytelling and her book. I can’t summarize what she said because I was close to tears as soon as she opened her mouth, and as soon as it was marginally appropriate to do so, I ran away and sobbed. I was moved, certainly, by pride and friendship, and also by a certain feeling of loss: the knowledge that the time I had spent with the text as my daily companion was over. Waclaw would never say or perceive anything new, ever again, and I already missed him keenly.
But I think in retrospect that my tears also had another source. Watching Anja speak—the author, the consciousness who had created the book I had just translated—was to see the text embodied, the writing continuing, brilliant and alive and absolutely separate from me. The pain stemmed from having created a text that I felt deeply satisfied with, that felt deeply right and true, as if every word and rhythm were the only ones possible for Waclaw, Anja, to speak in English, but which at the very same time somehow could not possibly ever do them justice, I suddenly felt.
We talk, in art—in painting, photography, writing—of “capturing” something. Fixing a feeling, or some little chunk of reality, in the given medium so that it is there for others to see, as in a zoo—so that it cannot escape. This is surely a very satisfying feeling, for both maker and perceiver. I know because this is very much what it felt like to write this translation. I was making something happen in language, making out of language something that would resonate, that a person could read to feel or experience or understand something, and the success of this effect rested on my craft, on my—in the musical sense—interpretation. The problem is that capturing a book is not the same as capturing reality. The “justice” one wishes to do to a text in translation is easily taken for some kind of final act, a transformative replacement: now that I have done my justice to this text, the case is closed, the original—problematic because not universally accessible—has been solved. But my translation, in the end, cannot embody Wie hoch die Wasser steigen in the sense of replacing it. It can only, by definition, split off from it.
For literature and the world, this is a wonderful thing. But to learn that the beloved is not you, and can never be fully possessed, is no easy thing. As I watched Anja speak, I saw that the sorcerer’s broom had been chopped in half, and the one half, the original, remained blithely sweeping away, dancing, living, doing whatever it felt like, when I had hoped in chopping to usurp its power. How to reconcile the joy of having a new broom with the sorrow that any number of other brooms can keep sweeping, outside of our control, perhaps even working against us? The relief that the work is over with the despair that the work will never, ever be over? The truth is that on some level I wanted to translate High as the Waters Rise in the first place because I wanted it to become my own. It is not a nice impulse.
Is the love that leads one to translate the wrong kind of love? Is it the love of a child who wants to supersede its mother, a jealous partner, a patriot turned dictator? Would I be writing this if it were?
Translators are often thought of as very generous people: shying from the spotlight, devoted to the service of an author or a text, fostering the survival and distribution of literature with no expectation of recognition or personal gain, paid the bare minimum to make the job feasible and often not even that. There is still a whiff of spinsterdom about the activity. This has always struck me as odd. Not just because of the—rather passionate—feelings and motivations I’ve described, but because translation, regardless of the translator, is the thing that gives. Translation makes more brooms no matter what the translator wants. And it gives, as well, to the translator. It gives, over and over again, a lesson that one needs a lifetime to learn: how to love.